As the novel coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) continues to spread around the globe, world leaders are taking drastic measures to protect their countries' populations. On March 16, France imposed a 15-day nationwide lockdown, barring any outings that aren't essential. France joined countries like Italy, China, and portions of the United States in limiting potential contact between residents in an effort to contain the virus. On March 19, as global leaders continue to restrict movement, U.S. authorities instructed all Americans living abroad to either return home, or plan to stay where they are indefinitely.
Megan Lapke, 27, is an American originally from California who has taught English in Strasbourg, France, since August 2018. Following the announcement from U.S. authorities, Lapke opted to remain in France, in large part because of her access to France's universal health care system during the coronavirus pandemic. She spoke to Elite Daily's news reporter Madhuri Sathish about why she decided to stay abroad during the pandemic and what shaped her decision.
I’ve always been one to keep up with the news, so I was following the coronavirus updates. I went on vacation to Amsterdam at the end of February, and I was slightly nervous, but not really worried. When the secondary and primary schools closed in Haut-Rhin — the county next to us — on March 9, I realized my region in France was a hotspot for the outbreak. I started to wonder: "Are the schools in my county going to close? What’s going to happen with my job?" I teach English at the University of Strasbourg, and my students were like, "Oh yeah, I think a lockdown is going to happen." But my coworkers and friends were saying, "No, the university will never close." It closed starting March 17.
If I went back to the United States, my access to health care would be one of my biggest concerns.
Initially, I’m not going to lie, I was pretty pessimistic about how effective a quarantine would be. Culturally, it's really important for French people to greet each other by shaking hands or with cheek-kissing, les bises. Whereas Americans, I feel like we’re quicker to adopt the whole no-hugging, social distancing thing because it’s less important for us to have a traditional greeting. But at the same time I was thinking to myself, "Well, I do have health care here."
I don’t have health care in the United States because I’m 27 years old, so it’s no longer possible for me to be on my parents’ insurance. If I went back to the United States, my access to health care would be one of my biggest concerns — especially because if I were back in the United States, I wouldn’t be entirely sure that I’d actually have a job and be employed. I had insurance before I moved to France, but it was only because of my parents, and my dad retired in 2014. That was pretty scary to me, realizing my lack of coverage.
France has universal health care and I have both public and private insurance here. So medically speaking, a lot of the things I have in France, I wouldn't be able to afford in the United States. I have a bigger safety net when it comes to medicine and health care, which is surprising because it’s not a very stable position to not be a European Union citizen. My visa could expire and then I'd have to go back. But if I needed care, I could pursue all avenues and all testing and I wouldn’t go broke. If I got sick enough to go to the hospital, I probably wouldn’t have to pay for my hospital stay unless I have a television, because France has a weird system where that costs extra. But I wouldn’t be worried at all, either about the level of care or the cost of the care.
The cost in the United States for a coronavirus test is astronomical. [Editor's Note: Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which passed Congress shortly after this conversation, testing is free to the American public. However, treatment can still run into the tens of thousands of dollars.] All the costs associated with potentially contracting this disease would freak me out, because health care costs way more in the United States. As a teacher, I don’t have tons of savings, I don’t have a big salary, and I feel responsible for paying for medical fees for myself. My parents might offer, but I feel like I’m supposed to be more adult than that. I don’t understand how we, as humans, don’t have health coverage.
In France, you can get paid sick leave. But in the United States, most people don’t have any paid sick leave.
In France, it’s understood that people will only be tested for coronavirus if they have symptoms, but it’s also understood that they can get tested if they have symptoms. But in the United States, I hear there aren’t enough tests and I don’t know when they're going to get them. In France, you can get paid sick leave to stay with your sick family, or if you get sick yourself. But in the United States, most people don’t have any paid sick leave. [Editor's Note: Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, some workers are eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave if they become ill, quarantined, or are caring for sick family members. The policy does not cover all workers.] In France, we have so many more social protections than in the United States, so I guess it’s kind of understandable that there's such a big difference — but it still doesn’t make any sense to me why things are the way they are in the United States.
With this outbreak, I am a little bit concerned about my health. I don’t have any major, totally life-altering health conditions, but I was symptomatically diagnosed with endometriosis and I have digestive issues. It's nothing that stops me from living my life, but in the past I've been that person who gets every type of illness that’s going around. I’ve had mononucleosis, and when the H1N1 pandemic went around, I got that as well. So, I’m a little bit nervous. I was also recently out, probably three or four weeks ago, with strep throat, so I’m a little worried. I feel like I catch everything.
It’s actually helpful to think about how it could be worse.
For me, it was never really a choice to stay in Strasbourg or go home to the States. It was always just a given that I would stay. We don’t really know when this whole thing is going to disappear — I really hope it’ll be soon — but if I get a visa to stay next year, I will be here. Not having insurance in the United States is probably my biggest reason for staying, though.
I am pretty anxious about the pandemic. At the same time, it really could be worse, because I could be worrying about not having health insurance. It’s actually helpful to think about how it could be worse. I could be carrying this coronavirus, but I don’t have any symptoms. I’m not really, really sick, and I’m not immunocompromised or immunodeficient. I’m definitely anxious, but it could be worse.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.